Susan Forgie lives in a converted barn set amid eight-and-a-half acres of gently undulating limestone hills which straddle the ancient border of England and Wales.
When she put her home on the market, more than 250 families asked her estate agent for details. Ultimately, none would come to view. Mrs Forgie – 63, and widowed in 2011 – has had to take The Old Barn in Maesbrook, Oswestry, Shropshire, off the market.
Today her five-bedroomed property is as much a prison as a home because it stands on the potential path of a new line of high-voltage electricity pylons servicing a future cluster of wind farms in mid-Wales. Even at a knockdown price, she cannot sell.
She is entitled to compensation from neither National Grid, the company behind the pylon line, or the Government, that has pledged to generate 15 per cent of the UK’s power from renewable sources by 2020. It is a small human tragedy being played out against the backdrop of one of the major issues of the 21st Century – keeping Britain’s lights on.
And it is being replicated across the country as the demand for a cleaner, greener future threatens to turn the UK into what one campaigner has dubbed ‘pylon island’.
An ugly army of 400,000-volt pylons is set to march across some of Britain’s most beautiful landscapes. They are necessary to plug energy from wind turbines, new nuclear power stations and even the Continent into the National Grid.
Lines in Somerset, the Essex-Suffolk border and Mid Wales are ready to be put forward for planning consent, while one in Kent is not far behind. Lines in North Wales and on the North-West coast are still to have their exact routes settled. The most advanced is the Scottish line already under construction. The least, needed for the 2020s, is to bring wind energy ashore from turbines off the East Anglian coast.
But the giant pylons – some behemoths up to 213ft tall – will trap homeowners in blighted or unsellable homes, damage tourism-based businesses and spoil historic views. Areas under threat include the Highlands of Scotland, the southern gateway to the Lake District, the Somerset Levels, and the East Anglian countryside which inspired old masters Constable and Gainsborough. This new front in the battle to keep Britain at full power could have political repercussions in the run up to the 2015 General Election.
Local communities, led by a cross-party band of MPs including Tory Dr Liam Fox and Lib Dem Tessa Munt, accuse the Coalition of treating them as collateral damage in the race for renewables and a low-carbon future.
Last week, Sir Andrew Motion, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England – which has the Queen as patron – stepped up the political pressure with an attack on all three parties. He accused the Coalition and the Opposition of embracing energy policies which permit wind and solar farms to ‘industrialise the countryside they set out to preserve’.
The group forecasts that more than 200 miles of new pylons could blight England and Wales in the next decade. Added to that total is a project which dwarfs them all: in Scotland, a 137-mile power line is already under construction between Beauly, ten miles west of Inverness, and Denny near Falkirk to the south.
Among those who spoke of its devastating consequences of the SSE project was former Scottish rugby international Kenny Logan, who is married to TV presenter Gabby Logan.
The Logan family farms in the shadow of the world famous monument to Braveheart hero William Wallace at Abbey Craig near Stirling, past which the line crosses.
‘They should be proud of this land and the Scottish heritage it represents – instead they are tearing it up,’ says clan matriarch Elizabeth Logan, 81.
That was a battle lost in the war on super-pylons but others, notably in mid Wales, Somerset and Suffolk, are still being fought. North Somerset MP Dr Fox is in the vanguard demanding a coherent response from National Grid and the Government.
He said: ‘We need to accept that the cost of pylons is measured not just in money but in the loss of our countryside.
‘National Grid is so obsessed with the short term and pleasing its shareholders that it is clinging to old technologies instead of investing in new ones which could remove the scar of pylons for the next generation.
‘And they have a human cost. They blight the homes of those in their way and destroy the one thing country dwellers cherish more than any other – the beauty of the natural landscape.
‘No one wants Britain’s lights to go out, we all need electricity, but those unaffected by this issue close their eyes to it. Pylons were invented three quarters of a century ago: are they really still the best we can do?’
According to National Grid, the answer is yes. It favours pylons because of the significant saving compared to running power lines underground or sinking them offshore. A 2012 report commissioned by National Grid and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which was endorsed by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, concludes that a pylon line costs between £2.2 million and £4.2million per kilometre, whereas the cheapest undergrounding option costs between £10.2 million and £24.1 million for the same stretch.
The company highlights its environmental work to mitigate the effects of pylons – using topography and woodland to mask them – and its planned undergrounding in sensitive areas such as East Anglia’s Dedham Vale.
It is pledging to use some new ‘T’ shaped pylons, which are 50ft shorter than the traditional ‘A’ frame, and points out a line of super-pylons can give a net reduction in the number of pylons in an area such as Somerset, where 90 small 132-kilovolt pylons will be dismantled to make way for their bigger 400kv cousins.
A National Grid spokesman said: ‘These new connections are essential to keep the lights on and maintain our way of life. We plan routes away from homes and, where appropriate, use underground cables or the innovative new T-pylon design. We understand the local impact and we want to work with communities to reduce this, while also managing the cost paid by everyone through their energy bills. Ultimately it is the Government who decide whether we have got the balance right through the planning process.’
But unlike victims of other major national infrastructure projects, such as the new high speed rail link HS2, families and businesses in the path of these pylons receive no compensation unless a pylon is actually on their land. There is no payout for proximity, despite the visual blight and impact on house prices, estimated at 30 to 40 per cent by campaigners. Mother-of-three Megan Rathbone lives in a Georgian farmhouse with holiday lets in a rural area threatened by a proposed pylon line near Wrexham in North Wales. It’s not a National Grid scheme but a private company’s connection from a proposed gas-fired power station.
The DECC told her bluntly: ‘HS2 will have different impacts to transmission network infrastructure and mitigation measures are different.’ The high-speed rail link, it confirms, ‘does not set a precedent’.
Yet farmer and butcher James Ward, 53, who lives with wife Janet and their two children in Berghill Farmhouse in Oswestry – where pylons from National Grid’s Mid Wales connection could pass as close as 165ft away – says: ‘This has already ruined our life and potentially our livelihood.’ The scheme has ‘scuppered’ a business plan for diversification into free-range sausages and home-cured bacon, and to develop disused buildings on the farm. ‘We invested heavily and got planning permission for four dwellings in redundant barns,’ he said. ‘We developed one and moved into it ourselves. The sale of the old farmhouse was meant to be the last piece of the jigsaw.
‘It was on the market for £445,000 and was getting real interest but as soon as the path of the pylons was announced all the viewings stopped. The estate agent advised us to take it off the market as it is unsellable.
‘We have borrowed heavily and selling the farmhouse was an essential part of our plan. Financially, this could finish us – the pylons have made our assets worthless.’
In Wales’ Vyrnwy Valley in Montgomeryshire, Rhisiart Owen, 67, and his wife Hilary, 65, live in a Grade II* listed 1612 house restored under the eye of a Oxford university specialist over seven years. They are also victims of the so-called wind-rush, which they estimate has knocked at least 25 per cent off the value of their home.
Their house could have a pylon just 200ft away with the couple having to go under power lines to reach their front door. Mr Owen said: ‘We wanted this house to be as it was 400 years ago. How can having a pylon so close to a heritage site be justifiable?’
In Somerset, David Shepherd, 56, tells a similar story. He lives at Tarnock Farm, Axbridge, where he expects a pylon about 260ft from his home. ‘My wife and I were planning to move soon as our children are growing up. But houses nearby have stopped selling. So we are trapped in this house which will, by 2019, look out on to a huge pylon with 100ft of cables buzzing over us. We also have a little holiday cottage on our land but people come for unspoilt views, not to stare out on to a pylon. We feel helpless.’
As Liam Fox says: ‘The majority of the electricity transmitted along super-pylons is destined for urban centres, not the rural communities which suffer the greatest impact.
‘Everyone should share the costs over the long term – a few pennies per quarter – to put new power cables underground.’
For now, however, it is the minority who must pay the price.
‘It is a betrayal of ordinary people and unspoiled countryside,’ says Megan Rathbone. ‘We’re supposed to be a green and pleasant land – soon we’ll be green and pyloned.’
Additional reporting: Hannah Ellis-Petersen
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